There is more than a little irony in Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to attend a “celebration” dinner this week in London with his British counterpart, Theresa May, marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
Palestinian objections to the 1917 document are well-known. Britain’s Lord Balfour had no right to promise a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, on the land of another people.
But Israelis have been taught a different history in which they, not the Palestinians, were betrayed.
In 1939, Britain appeared to revoke its pledge, stating “unequivocally” that it would not establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Limits on Jewish immigration were imposed, at a time when Europe’s Jews were fleeing the Nazi Holocaust.
It was for this reason that nearly a quarter of a century ago, in his book A Place Among the Nations, Netanyahu accused Britain of perfidy.
One can understand the reluctance of Israelis today to concede the pivotal role provided by Britain. The Balfour Declaration is an embarrassing reminder that a Jewish state was the fruit of a transparently colonial project.
In fact, Britain assisted the Zionists as best it could, given the need to weigh its imperial interests. Restrictions on immigration were introduced under the severe strain of a three-year armed uprising by Palestinians, determined to prevent their country being given away.
Historian Rashid Khalidi has noted that the Palestinian revolt of the late 1930s included possibly the longest-ever anti-colonial general strike. It posed such a threat that Britain committed thousands of extra soldiers to repress the insurgency, even as war loomed in Europe.
By the time Britain departed Palestine in 1948, it had overseen three decades in which the Zionists were allowed to develop the institutions of statehood: a government-in-waiting, the Jewish Agency; a proto-army in the Haganah; and a land and settlement division known as the Jewish National Fund.
By contrast, any signs of Palestinian nationalism, let alone nation-building, were ruthlessly crushed. By the end of the Arab revolt, less than a decade before the Palestinians would face a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Zionists, Palestinian society lay in ruins.
Israel learnt two lessons from Britain that guided its subsequent struggle to quash Palestinian attempts at liberation.
First, Israel continued the draconian measures of British colonial rule. In the early 1950s, Menachem Begin, leader of the pre-state Irgun militia and a future Israeli prime minister, famously called Britain’s emergency regulations “Nazi laws”.
Nonetheless, they were incorporated into the military orders Israel uses against Palestinians under occupation. Significantly, the regulations are also still in force inside Israel against the country’s large minority of Palestinian citizens, one in five of the population. Israel has yet to end its seven-decade state of emergency.
The other lesson derives from the wording of the Balfour Declaration. It referred to the native Palestinians – then 90 per cent of Palestine’s inhabitants – as “existing non-Jewish communities”. It promised only to protect their “civil and religious rights”, denying them recognition as a nation deserving of political and social rights.
Israel followed suit. Palestinians in Israel were characterised as “the minorities”, or generic “Israeli Arabs”, rather than Palestinians. Israel’s perverse nationality laws assign them largely religious classifications as Druze, Arameans (Christians) and Arabs (increasingly synonymous with Muslims).
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Balfour Declaration: Britain Broke Its Feeble Promise to the Palestinians’.